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Carson: The Man Who Divided Ireland
Geoffrey Lewis

London: Hambledon and London, 2005
£19.99 , ix + 277 pages, ISBN 1-85285-454-5 (hardback)


Reviewed by Kevin Matthews


Whenever–if ever–Northern Ireland’s Assembly gets round to governing the six-county province, its members each day will pass beneath a statue that, if it is not unique, is at least unusual. Not so much heroic or statesmanlike, the figure instead looks as if it is getting ready for a fight.

The pose is fitting because Edward Carson, the man it represents, is as reviled as he is admired by those same assembly members and for the same reason. As the subtitle of Geoffrey Lewis’s compelling if often frustrating biography puts it, Carson, more than any other, was "the man who divided Ireland." For over a decade between 1910 and 1921, Carson led the fight against Irish self-government or, as it was called, Home Rule. Throughout, he and his followers maintained that the union between Great Britain and Ireland was unbreakable and, when that was no longer tenable, that politicians in London should not be allowed to force the Protestant majority in the northern province of Ulster into an Irish state. In the process, Carson and the Ulster Unionists took both islands to the brink of civil war. If demonstrating loyalty to king and country by threatening rebellion seems contradictory, it was merely the crowning contradiction of Carson’s own, often contradictory life.

For those outside the Ulster Unionist tradition, Carson is a figure easy to caricature. Grim-faced–one contemporary remarked that he looked as if he had been "fed on vinegar"1–the unsmiling, stern Carson looked every bit the passionless Ulster Protestant of legend. In fact, he was none of those things. Born in 1854 in Dublin, Carson was a product of the south’s Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. From an early age, he identified with the life-style of his Protestant cousins in County Galway, which helps explain his later opposition to land reform [2, 5, 52]. Yet, he was not a reactionary. Nor, as Lewis argues, not always convincingly, was he a religious bigot. Unlike other Irish Unionists, Carson opposed religious discrimination and backed demands for the establishment of a Catholic university in Ireland [53, 101-102, 143, 161]. More surprising still, he opposed capital punishment, supported equal political rights for women, and wished to abolish "the connection between church and state."2

Even before he took center stage in the Home Rule struggle, Carson had made his reputation as a lawyer whose skills in the courtroom were formidable. This was never more true than in his relentless cross-examination of Oscar Wilde when the latter sued the Marquess of Queensberry. Enraged by his son’s homosexual relationship with Wilde, Queensberry famously–and inaccurately–accused Wilde of "posing as a sodomite." Just as inaccurately, but more regrettably, Wilde claimed that the accusation was untrue. Against the advice of both friends and attorneys, he insisted on pressing charges of criminal libel [39-40].    

The Wilde case was "the most celebrated" of Carson’s career, making him "as instantly recognized as a modern film star" [37]. It was also one in which he had a personal connection. Born just months apart, Carson and Wilde had grown up together in Dublin where both later attended Trinity College. But there the similarities came to an end. Carson disapproved of Wilde’s "‘flippant’ approach to life"; any qualms he may he may have felt about taking up Queensberry’s defense were dispelled once he was presented with proof that Wilde had indeed solicited young men for sex. Told that Carson would be his cross-examiner, Wilde is said to have replied: "No doubt he will perform the task with the added bitterness of an old friend" [3-4, 40-41].

Courtroom spectators were treated to a "duel of thrilling interest" as when Carson pressed Wilde to condemn a short story (not his own) as immoral. Wilde turned aside the challenge, famously responding that immorality was not the story’s real fault: "Worse, it is badly written" [42]. Answers like these delighted the audience, but Wilde found that he could not extricate himself from the net being drawn by Carson’s dogged questioning. Three days into the trial the game was up, and Queensberry was acquitted of all charges. Carson played no role in the subsequent trials that led to Wilde’s imprisonment, and he may have even tried to intercede on his former friend’s behalf. But if he ever felt any remorse for the role he played in bringing about Wilde’s downfall, he never showed it [44-46].

The same skills that destroyed Oscar Wilde were the ones that had already propelled Carson into the political arena. Shortly after being appointed a crown prosecutor, Carson came to the attention of Ireland’s new viceroy, the Marquess of Londonderry, and his chief secretary, Arthur James Balfour. Londonderry and, even more, his wife, Theresa, became Carson’s patrons, while Balfour  "intervened decisively in Carson’s career" by persuading him to stand for the British Parliament [19, 24, 27-28]. Although Carson "found that he could move easily in these elevated regions", his wife could not [21]. Annette Kirwan married Carson in 1879 while he was still a young lawyer. Despite Carson’s "obsessive hypochondria," these were "golden" years and within a short time the couple had two sons and two daughters. As his career began to take off, however, Carson became estranged from his family, except for his daughter, Aileen. The move to London in 1892 further strained family relations. Annette Carson was perfectly happy as the wife of a middle-class Dublin barrister. Tory high society was another matter. "The glittering evenings of London," Lewis writes, "were frightening and alien." As her granddaughter bluntly put it, Annette Carson could not "make the jump." By the time of her death in 1913, her marriage had long since become a casualty of Carson’s ambitions [7, 11, 29, 34-35, 111].

A year before Annette Carson’s death, her husband had already met his future wife. Thirty years his junior, Ruby Frewen then initiated a correspondence with Carson that, after his wife’s death, blossomed into romance and, in 1914, marriage. In 1920, when Carson was 66, the couple’s only child, a son also named Edward, was born [100-101, 157, 170-71, 225]. Beyond an earlier suggestion that Carson’s life was "almost devoid of romance" before meeting Frewen, Lewis has little to say about Carson’s second marriage, and nothing at all about his relationship with his third son [7].

Any failure on this score, though, is overshadowed by the chances missed when Lewis takes on the battle over Home Rule. In retrospect, the measure of self-rule against which Carson set himself was remarkably modest. Three times–in 1886, 1893 and, finally, between 1912 and 1914–Liberal governments proposed giving the Irish a very limited measure of self-government, akin to the powers of an American or Australian state, or a Canadian province. Home Rule was not independence, it was an alternative to it. Ireland was to continue to be a part of the United Kingdom with representation in the imperial parliament.3  For opponents like Carson, however, even this was too much and he "devoted his life to the maintenance of the Union of Britain and All-Ireland." Later, when the Anglo-Irish War made it obvious that  most of his fellow Irishmen wanted to break the British link, "it was inevitable that he would keep what he could"–in other words, Carson and his followers then worked for the partition of the six Ulster counties that is today Northern Ireland [95, 233].

Lewis embraces the reasons for partition while absolving his subject of any responsibility for the actual split. Carson, he says, was the "Father of Northern Ireland. But he did not will it, or even want it. Necessity created it. Ireland was and is two nations and two races" [14-15, 233]. The problem is that Carson and his followers hardly were consistent on this matter. Initially, at least, Unionists "denied that Ireland was a separate nation" from the rest of the United Kingdom.4  If that were true, how could there be "two nations" in Ireland itself?

If on the other hand the "two nations" theory was valid, Carson’s actions in the struggle over Irish self-rule are even harder to defend. Carson became leader of the Irish Unionist Party during the struggle over the Liberal government’s reform of the House of Lords. Everyone knew at the time that stripping the Lords of their power to veto legislation passed by the House of Commons meant that a Home Rule bill would be right round the corner. Without the Lords’ veto, Carson and the Irish Unionists, along with their allies in the British Conservative Party, fell back on their next line of defense: a threatened rebellion by the Protestant majority in Ulster. Lewis calls this threat a "blocking move," and that is the way Carson presented it to Unionists in the south of Ireland. "If Ulster succeeds Home Rule is dead" he assured them [98]. Outnumbered in a way that their co-religionists in the north could never dream of, Southern Unionists recognized that their salvation depended on maintaining a common front with their Ulster brethren.

Yet early on, Carson abandoned the Southern Unionists. Why?  They, not the Ulster Unionists, were his kith and kin. Deserting the southern Protestants meant deserting his cousins in County Galway, his old friends and neighbors in Dublin. Lewis frees Carson of any responsibility for the Southern Unionists after he held an acrimonious meeting with their leaders at the end of 1913. While his followers in the north were raising an army, the Ulster Volunteer Force, there was no "organized opposition to Home Rule" in the south, not even a resolution by the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. Why should Ulster Unionists be asked to risk a civil war if their co-religionists in the south were unwilling even to issue a public statement for fear of the adverse consequences to their businesses [127]?

Elsewhere, though, Lewis suggests that Carson may have decided that the Southern Unionists were expendable long before this meeting ever took place. Within weeks of  assuring them that Ulster’s success meant that  "Home Rule is dead," Carson drafted a memorandum to the new Conservative Party leader, Andrew Bonar Law, indicating that "separate treatment" for Ulster–i.e. partition–might be the best that their side could get [81-82]. This would have been music to Bonar Law’s ears. Far more than Lewis is willing to admit, it was he, not Carson, who proved to be the really decisive figure in the Home Rule crisis. And for Bonar Law what mattered most was Ulster. He was quite prepared to "throw the Unionist minority in the South and West to the wolves."5  

Necessary?  Maybe. But it takes concepts like loyalty and allegiance, notions at the center of Unionism, and casts them in a new, and not very pretty light.

In any case, Carson could not ignore the views of his most vital ally. Without Bonar Law and the Conservatives, it is hard to see how the Ulster Unionists could have mounted a credible threat to Asquith’s Liberal government. Lewis deftly recounts the main episodes of the Home Rule struggle: the Larne gun-running by the UVF; the creation of a nationalist paramilitary force, the Irish Volunteers; the "mutiny" of British officers at the Curragh; the failed attempts at compromise. Only the sudden advent of World War I spared the British from a civil war over Ireland. What is ironic is that the July crisis of 1914 was spurred on, in part, because German leaders believed that the British were so consumed by Irish problems that they would be unable to intervene in any continental war [165].

After the Liberals and Conservatives formed a coalition the following year, Carson was in and out of government for much of the war. This included a stint as First Lord of the Admiralty, where he proved to be a surprisingly indecisive minister at the height of the U-boat campaign. But, as always, the issue closest to his heart continued to be Ireland. At the start of the war, and over Carson’s enraged objections, the Liberals passed the Home Rule bill into law, only to immediately suspend it for the war’s duration. They also promised a separate bill to deal with Ulster’s exclusion from the Irish parliament they had just created. This, too, would be considered only after the end of the war. Militant nationalists in Ireland were unwilling to wait that long and, in 1916, they launched the doomed Easter Rising. Reaction to the rebellion forced Asquith to turn to his Liberal rival, David Lloyd George, who was asked to come up with an immediate solution to the Irish Question.

Together, Carson and Lloyd George quickly devised a solution that granted immediate self-government to southern Ireland but at the price of partition. This would not, however, mean that all of Carson’s Ulster followers would be "saved" from Home Rule. The problem was that of Ulster’s nine counties, only four had populations that were predominantly Protestant and, presumably, Unionist. Three were overwhelmingly Catholic and, presumably, nationalist while two, Fermanagh and Tyrone, were evenly balanced. The negotiators agreed on a six-county partition. Carson was able to sell the plan to the Ulster Unionist Council in part because the war was going badly for the Allies and obtaining assistance from the United States depended on settling the Irish Question. Or so it was thought. He succeeded, but his reputation among his followers was never the same again and, anyway, the deal soon collapsed. Lewis blames the wrecking tactics of Southern Unionists, though it is just as likely that the arrangement would have fallen apart once the contradictory pledges given by Lloyd George to nationalists and Unionists had been fully exposed [188-190].  

Ireland continued to dog British leaders for the rest of the war, but only after hostilities ceased were they forced to deal with the problem in any meaningful way. Lloyd George, now prime minister, led a new coalition dominated by Conservatives including Bonar Law. Their answer was yet a fourth Home Rule bill, this one creating separate parliaments for both northern and southern Ireland, with a promised Council of Ireland to enable eventual reunification. Such an arrangement might have worked in 1914. But by 1920, when this legislation was finally enacted, Irishmen–nationalist Irishmen, at any rate–had moved on. No longer willing to accept Home Rule within the United Kingdom, they demanded an independent republic with their own paramilitary force, the Irish Republican Army, to back them up.

By this time, Carson was relinquishing command of the Ulster Unionist movement to his chief lieutenant, Sir James Craig. Even so, it was Carson who "bore the brunt of the resentment" when it came time to convince Ulster Unionists to again accept a six-county partition, this time for good [224]. If  his followers did not immediately recognizes the advantages of the 1920 Act, Carson did. As he noted in one debate, "you cannot knock Parliaments up and down as you do a ball, and once you have planted them there, you cannot get rid of them."6

But what about Unionists in the rest of Ireland?  Unable to impose Home Rule on a people no longer willing to accept it, Lloyd George eventually was forced to grant dominion status to most of Ireland, including those three predominantly Catholic Ulster counties. While not a republic, dominion status gave the Irish a measure of independence far beyond anything that the Home Rulers had dreamed of. Carson bitterly denounced the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, not least because it made "no provisions for the men who had stuck to us" [230-31]. Coming from someone who had done so much to create this new reality, that was a bit rich.

More to the point, it made a lie of one of the main arguments for partition. In 1916 one six-counties Unionist had claimed that they "would be in a better position to help Unionists in any part of Ireland if we are excluded than if we formed portion [sic] of a permanent minority in a Dublin Parliament."7  Once the Ulster Unionists obtained their own government, however, they turned their backs on their co-religionists in the south. In the decade after independence, Protestants fled the new Irish Free State in droves further widening the gap between north and south. Like Carson’s other biographers, Lewis does not make his subject account for this legacy. Nor, like them, does he tackle a larger, related question.

From the beginning, Unionists argued that granting self-government to Ireland "would be a deadly blow aimed at the heart of the Empire" [129-30]. Yet their stubborn opposition to Home Rule led to the nightmare they feared most: an Ireland suspicious of, and often at odds with its British neighbor. That was never more true than in the world war that occurred just four years after Carson’s death. Unlike virtually every other dominion, southern Ireland remained neutral in the war against Nazi Germany. The excuse given by its prime minister, Eamon de Valera, was that the British could not expect Irish assistance so long as their country remained partitioned. Denied access to southern Irish ports, the British nearly lost the Battle of the Atlantic and, with it, the war.

A Home Rule Ireland, even an Irish dominion that had evolved out of Home Rule, would have acted very differently. While it is dangerous to entertain too many "what ifs," it is not far-fetched to conclude that such an Ireland, an unpartitioned Ireland would have been at Britain’s side at the time of its greatest peril–the one thing that Carson wanted most. Lewis misses an opportunity to explore this part of Carson’s legacy. Perhaps a future biographer will take up the challenge.



1.Patrick Buckland, "Carson, Craig and the Partition of Ireland," Nationalism & Unionism: Conflict in Ireland, 1885-1921, ed. Peter Collins (Belfast: Queen’s University of Belfast, 1994) 77. back
2. Ibid. back
3. See R.F. Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Press, 1988) 424-25, for a comparison of the three Home Rule measures. back
4. Buckland, 80. back     
5. Nicholas Mansergh, The Unresolved Question: The Anglo-Irish Settlement and Its Undoing, 1912-72 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) 62.
6. Michael Laffan, The Partition of Ireland: 1911-1925 (Dundalk: Dundalgan Press, 1983) 64. back
7. Buckland, Patrick, ed. Irish Unionism, 1885-1923: A Documentary History. Belfast: HM Stationery Office, 1973, p. 406. back


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